Posts filed under Roe v. Wade

Roe v. Wade Day #35

Blog for Choice Day * January 22, 2008

The most important thing feminists have done and have to keep doing is to insist that the basic reason for repealing the laws and making abortions available is justice: women’s right to abortion.

There are many reasons why a woman might seek a late abortion, and she should be able to find one legally if she wants it. She may suddenly discover that she had German measles in early pregnancy and that her fetus is deformed; she may have had a sudden mental breakdown; or some calamity may have changed the circumstances of her life: whatever her reasons, she belongs to herself and not to the state.

— Lucinda Cisler (1969): Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women

To-day is the 35th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, the jubilee day on which abortion laws were repealed in every state of the United States, and the United States judiciary recognized, finally, even if in a limited and limiting way, every woman’s fundamental human right to control her own body, and to exercise her rightful self-ownership, if she sees fit, to refuse the use of her reproductive organs to Man, Fetus, and State. There’s a lot not to like about the specifics of the reasoning in Roe, and it’s often frustrating that Roe is the ruling that we’ve got to celebrate, or at least defend. But if nothing else, it is worth celebrating the pro-choice feminist movement that made Roe inevitable, and which won Roe for the capstone of a remarkable, explosive struggle, over the course of just under 4 years, from the decisive beginning of the pro-choice feminist movement in early 1969, to the Supreme Court decision in January 1973. (There was a small, barely effectual abortion law reform movement before 1969; but February and March 1969 marked the beginning of the abortion law repeal movement, and also the beginning of the pro-choice argument — that is, early 1969 is when the argument shifted from the old tack of getting people to feel sorry for the poor desperate girl, to the new demand by radicalized women for their right to the determine how their own bodies will or will not be used.) The repeal movement exploded basically out of nowhere, at a time when abortion was criminalized in every one of the 50 states. Led by a coalition of radical Women’s Liberationists and radicalized ordinary women, the new movement quickly shoved aside the male experts, both reactionary and reformist, who had dominated the discourse for decades beforehand, threw out the request for piecemeal reforms (of the rape-incest-health of the mother variety), demanded instead the complete repeal of all abortion laws, and then won, first with the New York state repeal in 1971, and then with the nation-wide repeal in January 1973. That’s something to remember, and to celebrate.

Men don’t get pregnant, men don’t bear children. Men just make laws.

— Redstockings demonstrator, at a New York legislative hearing on abortion laws, 13 February 1969

Like all anniversaries, this is a good day for remembering, and for honoring. One of the things I think it is most important to remember on this day, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the way in which the occasion is attached to a legal ruling handed down by nine men in black robes, is a matter of strategy. It is all too easy to make the latest political cockfight out as the be-all and end-all of pro-choice activism; to realize, correctly, that the legal position of abortion rights is really precarious and to leap, incorrectly, to the conclusion that if Roe falls, that will be the end of it. No it won’t. The pro-life State had its guns trained on us before, and we beat it. If it turns its guns on us again, that will be terrible, but we will beat it again nevertheless. Perhaps by once again forcing the hand of state legislators or the courts. Or perhaps not. There are other ways to get it done. Here is how a group of women in Chicago took matters into their own hands, years before Roe, without the blessing of the male experts and in defiance of the man-made Law, in order to make justice for their sisters a reality.

Radical women in Chicago poured their energy into Jane, an abortion referral service initiated by Heather Booth, who had been a one-woman grapevine for her college classmates. In 1971, after Booth’s departure, some of the women took matters into their own hands and secretly began to perform the abortions themselves. Safe, compassionate terminations for a modest fee became their high calling—a model, as they saw it, for women’s empowerment after the revolution.

Leaflets appeared in the Hyde Park neighborhood of the University of Chicago bearing a simple message: Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane at 643-3844. The number rang at the home of one of the activists who volunteered to be Jane. As word spread and the volume of calls increased, the service acquired its own phone line and an answering machine, a cumbersome reel-to-reel device that was one of the first on the market. Volunteers, known inside the service as call-back Janes, visited the abortion seekers to elicit crucial medical details (most important was lmp, the number of weeks since the last menstrual period), then another level of volunteers scheduled an appointment with one of the abortionists on the group’s list.

At first the service relied on Mike in Cicero, who was fast, efficient, and willing to lower his price to five hundred dollars as the volume increased. Mike gradually let down his guard with Jody Parsons, his principal Jane contact, an artisan who sold her beaded jewelry and ceramics at street fairs and was a survivor of Hodgkin’s disease. The clandestine abortionist and the hippy artisan struck up a bond. When Mike confessed that he was not in fact a real doctor but merely a trained technician, she cajoled him into teaching her his skills. Jody’s rapid success in learning to maneuver the dilating clamps, curettes, and forceps demystified the forbidden procedures for another half dozen women in Jane. If he can do it, then we can do it became their motto.

Madeline Schwenk, a banker’s daughter who had married at twenty, six months pregnant with no clue whatsoever about how to get an abortion, moved from counseling to vacuum aspiration after Harvey Karman, the controversial director of a California clinic, came to Chicago to demonstrate his technique. Madeline was one of the few women in Jane who was active in NOW, and who stayed affiliated with the Chicago chapter during the year she wielded her cannula and curette for the service. I’d get up in the morning, make breakfast for my three kids, go off to do the abortions, then go home to make dinner, she reminisces. Pretty ourageous behavior when you think about it. But exciting.

Jane’s abortion practitioners and their assistants were able to handle a total of thirty cases a day at affordable fees—under one hundred dollars. A doctor and a pharmacist among the women’s contacts kept them supplied with antibiotics.

Fear of police surveillance in radical circles had its match among clandestine abortionists who relied on a complicated rigamarole of blindfolds and middlemen. Jane straddled both worlds. Abortion seekers gathered every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at a front apartment, usually the home of a Jane member or friend, and were escorted by Jane drivers to the Place, a rented apartment where the abortions were performed. The fronts and the Place changed on a regular basis. New volunteers, brought into the group by counselors and drivers, went through a probation period before they were told that women in Jane were doing the abortions. The news did not sit well with everyone. Turnover was high, from fear and from burnout, although the service usually maintained its regular complement of thirty members.

Jane lost most of its middle-class clientele after the New York law [repealing the state’s abortion ban] went into effect. Increasingly it began to service South Side women, poor and black, who did not have the money to travel out of state, and whose health problems, from high blood pressure to obesity, were daunting. Pressure on the providers intensified. Audaciously they added second-trimester abortionsby induced miscarriage to their skills.

On May 3, 1972, near the conclusion of a busy work day in an eleventh-floor apartment on South Shore Drive overlooking Lake Michigan, Jane got busted. Seven women, including Madeline Schwenk, were arrested and bailed out the following day. The Chicago Daily News blared Women Seized in Cut-Rate Clinic in a front-page banner. The Tribune buried Lib Groups Linked to Abortions on an inside page. Six weeks later the service was back in buinsess. Wisely, the women facing criminal charges selected a defense attorney who was clued in to and optimistic about the national picture. She advised them to hang tight—some interesting developments were taking place in Washington that could help their case. (After the January 1973 Roe decision, all outstanding charges against the seven were dropped.)

The activists of Jane believe they performed more than ten thousand abortions. It’s a ballpark figure based on the number of procedures they remember doing in a given week. For security reasons they did not keep records.

— Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, pp. 123—125

The repeal of the abortion laws in the United States wasn’t a gift handed down out of benevolence by a gang of old men in robes. It was struggled for, and won, by women in our own times. It didn’t take ballot boxes; it didn’t take political parties; it didn’t take clever legal briefs. It took radical women who stood up for themselves, who challenged the authority of self-appointed male experts and law-makers, who spoke truth to power, who took things into their own hands and helped their sisters, in defiance of the law, because they knew that they had a right to do it, and to hell with any law and any government that said otherwise. Radical feminists who built a movement for their own freedom over a matter of months and decisively changed the world in less than five years. It’s not just that we owe the Redstockings, Cindy Cisler, Heather Booth, Jody Parsons, Madeline Schwenk, and so many others our praise. They do deserve our cheers, but they also deserve our study and our emulation. They did amazing things, and we — feminists, leftists, anti-statists — owe it not only to them, but to ourselves, to honor them by trying to learn from their example.

Further reading:

Dropping the plumb line

In his Open Letter to Libertarians on Ron Paul, featured on anti-state, anti-war, pro-market LewRockwell.com, anarchist David Gordon made the following objection to Steven Horwitz’s pro-choice libertarian objections to Paul’s position on abortion:

No power to regulate abortion is granted to the federal government. Some of course claim that the Fourteenth Amendment changes matters, but it requires very strained interpretation to conjure a right to abortion out of the text of this Amendment. One critic of Ron Paul has admitted that Roe v. Wade is bad law but thinks we should somehow get to the correct pro-abortion view. Is this not to surrender the possibility of constitutional limits on the federal government?

To which I replied:

Yes. So what?

Anarchists don’t believe in constitutional government.

In his recent rejoinder, Gordon responded:

Anarchists oppose a monopoly state, but it hardly follows from this that if there is a government, anarchists shouldn’t be concerned with restraining it.

But I do not claim that anarchists shouldn’t be concerned with restraining actually existing governments. What I claim is that anarchists do not recognize the legitimacy of constitutional governments any more than they recognize the legitimacy unconstitutional governments, since any government, no matter how restrained by a written constitution, must necessarily violate the rights of innocent individual people in order to remain a government. But if constitutional government has no special claim on our allegiance with respect to its legitimacy, then restraining government through the instrument of a written constitution is, at the most, a pragmatic strategy which should be pursued or abandoned in any given case according to its likelihood of success. If it turns out to be a foolish strategy, then abandoning it is no great loss for libertarians.

But if the question is one of practical prospects, then the strategy of trying to restrain the federal government through the instrument of the United States Constitution has already been empirically tested, and it has already failed. As Lysander Spooner wrote, But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain —- that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist. Thus I would argue that anarchists should be intensely concerned with the problem of restraining actually existing governments. What I deny is that there is either any moral or any strategic reason to try to do so through the instrument of paper constitutions.

Concerning Roe, I will pause to say that, unlike Steven Horwitz, I don’t regard the majority decision as bad constitutional law. Since I am an anarchist, I regard the U.S. constitution as having no color of legal authority, so I don’t much think that there is a right way or a wrong way to read the Constitution in legal contexts, and I don’t think that the failure of a ruling to line up with a restrictive reading of the ipsissima verba of the Constitution is any more of a vice in the ruling than its failure to line up with a traditionalist reading of shariah. If such rulings can be evaluated as good or bad law at all, it must be on the basis of other standards — such as how far they serve to restrain or to promote actual state aggression. To the extent abortion laws are invasions against the liberty of pregnant women to dispose of their own bodies as they see fit, a ruling that repeals those laws is a good ruling, even if it doesn’t line up with a literalist reading of the Constitution. To the extent that eminent domain laws are invasions against the liberty of homeowners to keep their own homes, Kelo was a bad ruling, even if it does line up with some literalist readings of the Constitution.

On Ron Paul’s support for a federal police state to enforce international apartheid, Gordon wrote:

Some object to Ron Paul because he does not support an open borders immigration policy. But why should one take this position to be essential to libertarianism? Hans Hoppe has raised strong objections to open borders; and Murray Rothbard, in his last years, abandoned the view. Free immigration combined with a welfare state is a dangerous brew: does it make sense to reject Ron Paul because he cannot accept it?

I replied:

Yes.

Anarchists don’t believe in national borders and they don’t believe in a federal police state to enforce them.

Gordon had this to say:

On immigration, Johnson says that anarchists should ignore national boundaries. Why? Once more, anarchism is a view about the justification of government. It is opposed to states, not nations.

But I did not say that anarchism per se is opposed to nations. I said that anarchists don’t believe in national borders. In anarchy there are no national borders, only the boundaries of individual or common property. Nobody has any just claim to enforce restrictions on any borders other than these. But the continent-spanning territory of the United States of America is not the common property of the American nation, let alone the proprietary domain of the United States government. Thus there is no entity that has any just claim to set collective terms for immigration that can be imposed upon the entire nation. Anarchism rejects all forms of coercion against peaceful people, including the coercion that must necessarily be committed against landlords, employers, and migrant workers in order for the federal government to exile workers from private property onto which they have been invited, or to stop them from doing jobs for willing employers. That includes not only existing federal immigration laws, but also the (more aggressive) federal immigration laws that Ron Paul supports, and the federal immigration laws that Hans-Hermann Hoppe has deluded himself into thinking that an anarchist can consistently support. Anarchists should take no notice whatsoever of government-enforced national boundaries, except to trample them underfoot as an usurpation.

In response to my complaints against a particular pseudo-libertarian argument in favor of immigration laws, Gordon adds:

He points out that some efforts to restrict immigration use violence against people; and he is right that here lies danger. Libertarians who favor immigration restrictions need to specify exactly what measures they think permissible. Ron Paul doesn’t favor beating and jailing people.

I have no idea why Gordon would say this. Of course Ron Paul does favor beating and jailing people in the name of his immigration control policy. He favors the creation and enforcement of federal immigration laws, including a paramilitary lock-down of the land borders, aggressive enforcement of the existing visa system, and the continued criminalization (no amnesty) of currently undocumented immigrants. He also favors the necessary means to these ends: border walls, paramilitary border patrols, government immigration dossiers and employment papers, internal immigration cops, detention centers, and all the other necessary means to interdicting, discovering, arresting, jailing, and deporting people who try to live and work peacefully in the United States without a federal permission slip for their existence. If you don’t believe that this process necessarily involves violent means, then just try to cross the border without government papers and see what happens to you.

For what it’s worth, I don’t claim that anyone who favors immigration laws is (ipso facto) no longer a True Libertarian. But I do claim that libertarians cannot hold the position consistently, and that attempting to hold the position while also holding a libertarian theory of individual rights necessarily involves grave cognitive vices, and probably grave moral vices, too. In any case support for coercive immigration laws is a good reason for libertarians to refuse their support to a candidate for political office.

On the relationship between libertarianism and leftist or feminist cultural projects, Gordon clarifies that he was not referring to the argument that Roderick Long and I advance in our essay on libertarian feminism, but rather to a different argument by a different writer. He has also stressed elsewhere that his argument is only intended to recommend Ron Paul as a candidate, not to claim that libertarians have some kind of moral obligation to support Ron Paul (or any other candidate in government elections). Fair enough. I’ll let those to whom his letter did refer speak for themselves, as far as the charge of subordinating libertarianism to leftist concerns goes. And for what it’s worth, my intention here is not to claim that libertarians have an obligation not to vote for Ron Paul, or even to make any recommendation for or against voting for Ron Paul. It is merely to take issue with the logic of certain arguments that have been used against libertarian critics of Paul’s campaign. In that vein, I don’t buy the argument that follows:

Johnson correctly claims that the concept of libertarianism doesn’t imply political support for libertarians in elections. I think, though, that if someone who defends political action refuses to support Ron Paul just because he is not a left libertarian, then he is subordinating libertarianism to leftist views.

When Gordon speaks of subordinating libertarianism to leftist views, he does not make it clear whether he means subordinating the left-libertarian’s libertarianism of as a political principle, or whether he means subordinating the candidate’s libertarianism as a criterion for supporting a that candidate in government elections. If the former, then Gordon’s conditional is obviously false. There are lots of practical considerations that affect whether or not one should support a particular candidate in government elections, and declining to support a particularly libertarian candidate for reasons other than her own level of libertarianism is not equivalent to subordinating your own libertarian principles to those other concerns. (I wouldn’t support voting for Murray Rothbard for President, either, even though he would be a much more libertarian candidate than Ron Paul. Since he’s dead, and therefore ineligible to run, such a campaign would be foolish. But this decision doesn’t mean that I subordinate libertarian principles to expediency.)

If, on the other hand, he means that such a choice reflects a subordination of criteria based on the candidate’s level of libertarianism to criteria that are based on other considerations, the conditional is still false, although less obviously so. If I reject X for lacking feature A, while X does have feature B, you cannot reliably infer from my choice that I subordinate preferences for B to preferences for A. It may very well be that B and A are valued equally and indepdently of one another, and that lacking either is considered a sufficient condition for rejecting an alternative.

But more to the point, even if Gordon’s conditional were true on this understanding, it is not clear why that would be objectionable. There is no reason for principled libertarians to treat a candidate’s overall level of libertarianism as the sole or the decisive or even the most important criterion in choosing whether to vote for that candidate, or someone else, or nobody at all. Insofar as voting has any worth at all for anarchists, it is only instrumentally, as a means of defense against government invasions of your own or the liberty of other people you are concerned for. But there’s no guarantee that that end will always be best served by adopting the candidate’s overall level of libertarianism as the sole or the decisive criterion for supporting that candidate. They may be or they may not be, depending on the breaks.

In either case, it is, once more, a serious mistake for libertarians of any stripe, and especially anarchists, to treat government elections as the be-all and end-all of libertarianism.

Gordon closes his rejoinder by saying:

Johnson apparently accepts this as a good argument: Johnson believes p; therefore, anarchists believe p. His post is unfortunately a prime example of the libertarian dogmatism I was most concerned with in my Open Letter.

Hardly. All that I claim is that a couple of propositions — in particular, rejecting the legitimacy of constitutional governments, and rejecting the legitimacy of enforcing restrictions on government-defined national borders, are well-established, core doctrines of anarchism as such.

Core, not essential; anarchism is a family resemblance concept, and some anarchists may deviate from some core anarchist beliefs without ceasing to count as anarchists. But certainly a letter which is written by an anarchist for an audience which includes many other anarchists ought to take such core beliefs seriously, and to recognize that arguments that either tacitly or explicitly presume the falsity of those core doctrines will fail to be persuasive to those who follow the plumb-line.

If this be dogmatism, let us make the most of it.

Further reading:

We put the “Arch” in “Anarchy” #2

David Gordon — a Rothbardian anarchist and frequent contributor to anti-state, anti-war, pro-market LewRockwell.com — wrote an Open Letter To Libertarians on Ron Paul in which he denounces the running-dog radical libertarians who oppose Chairman Ron’s Great Libertarian Electoral Revolution. Here’s what he has to say about opposition to Chairman Ron’s position on abortion:

No power to regulate abortion is granted to the federal government. Some of course claim that the Fourteenth Amendment changes matters, but it requires very strained interpretation to conjure a right to abortion out of the text of this Amendment. One critic of Ron Paul has admitted that Roe v. Wade is bad law but thinks we should somehow get to the correct pro-abortion view. Is this not to surrender the possibility of constitutional limits on the federal government?

Yes. So what?

Anarchists don’t believe in constitutional government.

On Ron Paul’s support for an even more aggressive police state to enforce international apartheid:

Some object to Ron Paul because he does not support an open borders immigration policy. But why should one take this position to be essential to libertarianism? Hans Hoppe has raised strong objections to open borders; and Murray Rothbard, in his last years, abandoned the view. Free immigration combined with a welfare state is a dangerous brew: does it make sense to reject Ron Paul because he cannot accept it?

Yes.

Anarchists don’t believe in national borders and they don’t believe in a federal police state to enforce them.

It may be true that when you combine something fundamentally moral — free immigration — with something completely immoral — a coercive welfare state funded by expropriated tax funds — you’ll get bad consequences from the combination. But that’s a good reason to try to limit or eliminate the immoral part of the combination, by undermining or dismantling the apparatus of taxation and government welfare. It’s certainly not a good reason to try to limit or eliminate the moral part of the combination by escalating the federal government’s surveillance, recording, searching, beating, jailing, and exiling innocent people. Anarchists have no reason to accept the latter, either as a policy position, or even as a matter about which reasonable libertarians can agree to disagree.

Oddly, some of the same people who condemn Ron Paul for apostasy are themselves so devoted to left libertarianism that they subordinate libertarian principles to certain cultural values. They favor gender equality and are concerned lest we think ill of certain preferred minority groups. Libertarianism, they think, will best promote these values, and this fact is for them a chief reason to support libertarianism.

Since Gordon refuses to identify any individuals whose specific positions he is criticizing, it’s hard to tell whether he’s referring to the essay on libertarian feminism that Roderick Long and I co-authored, or whether he means to refer to somebody else. (If so, whom?) So it’s hard to know whom he expects to answer him when he asks:

Does not the question then arise, should libertarianism be subordinated to these values?

If he does intend to refer to my position, then he’s made two serious mistakes.

First, I don’t think that libertarianism should be subordinated to certain cultural values such as radical feminism. I believe that libertarianism, rightly understood, is both compatible with and mutually reinforcing with the cultural values of radical feminism, rightly understood. (For a more detailed explanation of the different kinds of links that there may be between libertarianism and radical feminism, see my reply to Jan Narveson on thick libertarianism.) The independent merit of radical feminism is one reason to support libertarianism as a political project (because opposing the patriarchal State is of value on feminist grounds), but that’s never been the sole reason or the primary reason I have suggested for being a libertarian. The primary reason to be a libertarian is that the libertarian theory of individual rights is true. From the standpoint of justice, the benefits that a stateless society offers for radical feminism are gravy. If there were some kind of proposal on the table to advance radical feminist goals by statist means, then I would reject the proposal, in favor of proposals that advance radical feminist goals by anti-statist means.

Second, libertarianism is not conceptually equivalent to actively supporting the most libertarian candidate in a government election. Libertarianism is a theory of political justice, not a particular political party or candidate. If one invokes feminist, anti-racist, or any other reasons not to actively support Ron Paul’s candidacy, those reasons may be good reasons or they may be bad reasons. But they are reasons for subordinating one particular strategy for libertarian outreach and activism — a strategy which, by the way, has basically zero empirical evidence whatever in favor of its effectiveness — to other concerns. But so what? There’s no reason for libertarians, and especially not for anarchists, to treat government elections as the be-all and end-all of libertarian principle.

Further reading:

Roe v. Wade Day #34

This post is part of Blog for Choice Day, January 22, 2007

Today is the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. In honor of the day there is a lot I want to say about abortion rights, and also an important announcement I want to make about a new project. But the dialectic and the announcement will both have to wait until the next couple days thanks to the demands of work; for now, I will mostly be repeating what I said last year.

There’s a lot not to like about the specifics of the reasoning in Roe, and it’s sometimes frustrating that Roe is the ruling that we’ve got to celebrate, or at least defend. But the decision did concretely take the boots of the male State from off the necks of millions of women across the United States. January 22 is a jubilee day, representing one of the chief victories of a remarkable, explosive struggle — which took place over the course of just under 4 years, from the decisive beginning of the feminist pro-choice movement in early 1969, to the decision in January 1973. (There was a small, barely effectual abortion law reform movement before 1969; but February and March 1969 marked the beginning of the abortion law repeal movement, and also the beginning of the pro-choice argument — that is, early 1969 is when the argument shifted from the old tack of getting people to feel sorry for the poor desperate girl, to the new demand by radicalized women for their right to the determine how their own bodies will or will not be used.)

Abortion on Demand and Without Apology!

Like most anniversaries, this one is partly about remembering and honoring. Today there are three things that I want you to remember, or to learn.

First, you should know all about two months that made all the difference. This is from Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution:

February 1969 was an important month in the abortion struggle. Larry Lader, a biographer of Margaret Sanger, summoned a handful of professionals in law and medicine to the Drake Hotel in Chicago for the organizing conference of NARAL, the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws. (NARAL became the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1974.) The conferees targeted specific states where they believed the repressive codes could be knocked down. New York, with its liberal constituency, was a top priority. Bills ranging from modest reforms (in cases of rape and incest) to outright repeal of all criminal penalties were already in the legislative hopper.

Betty Friedan, one of the main speakers at the Chicago NARAL meeting, reflected the changing political climate. At NOW’s founding convention in 1966, she had bowed to a clique that insisted that abortion rights were too divisive, too sexual, and too controversial for the fledgling organization, but since then a groundswell of younger members had stiffened her spine. NOW was being inundated by kids, one member observed. The kids from New York, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and elsewhere pushed through an abortion plank at NOW’s 1967 convention.

And the kids were forging ahead with their own tactics. On the same wintry day in mid-February when NARAL’s founders were traveling to Chicago for their first conference six state legislators held a public hearing in Manhattan on some proposed liberalizing amendments to the New York law. Typical of the times, the six legislators were men, and the spekaers invited to present expert testimony were fourteen men and a Catholic nun.

On the morning of the February 13 hearing, a dozen infiltrators camouflaged in dresses and stockings entered the hearing room and spaced themselves around the chamber. Some called themselves Redstockings, and some, like Joyce Ravitz, wre free-floating radicals who were practiced hands at political disruptions. Ravitz, in fact, had been on her way to another demonstration when she’d run into the Redstockings women, who convinced her to join them.

As a retired judge opined that abortion might be countenanced as a remedy after a woman had fulfilled her biological service to the community by bearing four children, Kathie Amatniek leaped to her feet and shouted, Let’s hear from the real experts—women! Taking her cue, Joyce Ravitz began to declaim an impassioned oration. Ellen Willis jumped in. More women rose to their feet.

Men don’t get pregnant, men don’t bear children. Men just make laws, a demonstrator bellowed.

Why are you refusing to admit we exist? cried another.

Girls, girls, you’ve made your point. Sit down. I’m on your side, a legislator urged, raising the temperature a notch higher.

Don’t call us girls, came the unified response. We are women!

The hearing dissolved in confusion. When the chairman attempted to reconvene it behind closed doors, the women sat down in the corridor, refusing to budge.

Stories appeared the next day in the Times (Women Break Up Abortion Hearing), the New York Post (Abortion Law Protesters Disrupt Panel), and the Daily News. Ellen Willis slipped out of her activist guise to do a report for Talk of the Town in The New Yorker. Nanette Rainone filed for WBAI radio and the Pacfica network. Barely a month old, Redstockings, with an assist from the radical floaters, had successfully dramatized the need for woman as expert in the abortion debate.

Five weeks later, on March 21, 1969, Redstockings staged a public speak-out, Abortion: Tell It Like It Is, at the Washington Square Methodist Church, a hub of antiwar activism in Greenwich Village. For some Women’s Liberation founders, the speak-out was the movement’s finest hour. Astounding, is the way Irene Peslikis puts it. It showed the power of consciousness-raising, how theory comes from deep inside a person’s life, and how it leads directly to action.

Peslikis had organized the panel and coached the women who were willing to speak. The idea, she says, was to get examples of different kinds of experiences—women who’d had the babies that were taken away, women who went to the hospital for a therapeutic abortion, women who’d gone the illegal route, the different kinds of illegal routes.

Three hundred women and a few men filled the church that evening as Helen Kritzler, Barbara Kaminsky, Rosalyn Baxandall, Anne Forer, and a few other brave souls passed a small microphone back and forth. Baxandall broke the ice with a touch of humor. I thought I was sophisticated, she joked into the mike. My boyfriend told me if he came a second time, the sperm would wash away, and I believed him.

Another woman recounted, So there I was in West New York, New Jersey, and the doctor had these crucifixes and holy pictures on the wall, and all he wanted was nine hundred dollars. I took out a vacation loan and I’m still paying it off.

Judy Gabree hurtled forward. I went to eleven hospitals searching for a therapeutic abortion. At the tenth, they offered me a deal. They’d do it if I agreed to get sterilized. I was twenty years old. I had to pretend I was crazy and suicidal, but having the abortion was the sanest thing I’d done.

More women added their personal testimony. I was one of those who kept quiet. Irene Peslikis had asked me to be one of the speakers, but I chose an easier path and played Village Voice reporter. My front-page story, Everywoman’s Abortions: The Oppressor Is Man, was the only substantive coverage the landmark speak-out received. Some retyped it in Chicago for the newsletter, which carried the news to activists around the country.

Another journalist, in aviator glasses and a miniskirt, was taking notes in the church that evening. She hovered near Jane Everhart, a NOW member, and whispered What’s going on?

Everhart whispered back, Sit down and listen!

Gloria Steinem was a friend of Women’s Liberation in 1969, but she had not yet thrown in her lot with the movement. Her plate was already overflowing with causes. Gloria spoke out against the war in Vietnam on late-night talk shows, raised money for liberal Democrats and Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers, and wrote earnest pieces on all of her issues for the popular magazines. Genetically endowed with the rangy limbs and sculpted features of a fashion model, Steinem glided through the rarefied world of radical chic expertly building her political connections. Beneath the exterior of the celebrity journalist was a woman who yearned to save the world.

Steinem received a shock of recognition when a Redstocking quipped, I bet every woman here has had an abortion. Hers had been done by a Harley Street practitioner in London during the late fifties after she’d graduated from Smith. Later she would say that the speak-out was her feminist revelation, the moment that redirected her public path. That night, however, she was working on a tight deadline. She threw together a hasty paragraph for the political diary she wrote for New York magazine. Nobody wants to reform the abortion laws, she explained in print. They want to repeal them. Completely.

The Redstockings abortion speak-out was an emblematic event for Women’s Liberation. Speak-outs based on the New York women’s model were organized in other cities within the year, and subsequent campaigns to change public opinion in the following decade would utilize first-person testimony in a full range of issues from rape and battery to child abuse and sexual harassment. The importance of personal testimony in a public setting, which overthrew the received wisdom of the experts, cannot be overestimated. It was an original technique and a powerful ideological tool. Ultimately, of course, first-person discourse on a dizzying variety of intimate subjects would become a gimmicky staple of the afternoon television talk shows, where the confessional style was utilized for its voyeuristic shock value. Back then, personal testimony was a political act of great courage.

— Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, pp. 106—109

Second, you should know why they were out there, putting themselves on the line for this, and why doing that had such a remarkable impact in so short of a time. I think we can find some of the reasons in Lucinda Cisler’s wonderful, hauntingly prescient Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women (1969).

… The most important thing feminists have done and have to keep doing is to insist that the basic reason for repealing the laws and making abortions available is justice: women’s right to abortion.

… Until just a couple of years ago the abortion movement was a tiny handful of good people who were still having to concentrate just on getting the taboo lifted from public discussions of the topic. They dared not even think about any proposals for legal change beyond reform (in which abortion is grudgingly parceled out by hospital committee fiat to the few women who can prove they’ve been raped, or who are crazy, or are in danger of bearing a defective baby). They spent a lot of time debating with priests about When Life Begins, and Which Abortions Are Justified. They were mostly doctors, lawyers, social workers, clergymen, professors, writers, and a few were just plain women—usually not particularly feminist.

Part of the reason the reform movement was very small was that it appealed mostly to altruism and very little to people’s self-interest: the circumstances covered by reform are tragic but they affect very few women’s lives, whereas repeal is compelling because most women know the fear of unwanted pregnancy and in fact get abortions for that reason.

… These people do deserve a lot of credit for their lonely and dogged insistence on raising the issue when everybody else wanted to pretend it didn’t exist. But because they invested so much energy earlier in working for reform (and got it in ten states), they have an important stake in believing that their position is the realistic one—that one must accept the small, so-called steps in the right direction that can be wrested from reluctant politicians, that it isn’t quite dignified to demonstrate or shout what you want, that raising the women’s rights issue will alienate politicians, and so on.

Because of course, it is the women’s movement whose demand for repeal—rather than reform—of the abortion laws has spurred the general acceleration in the abortion movement and its influence. Unfortunately, and ironically, the very rapidity of the change for which we are responsible is threatening to bring us to the point where we are offered something so close to what we want that our demands for radical change may never be achieved.

—Lucinda Cisler, Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women, ¶¶ 2–10

Cisler goes on to review four different restrictions or limitations on abortion-law repeal that she thinks could make for just this sort of roadblock. One of the best sections in the essay is her discussion a restriction with which we are all too familiar in the post-Roe world:

3: Abortions may not be performed beyond a certain time in pregnancy, unless the woman’s life is at stake. Significantly enough, the magic time limit varies from bill to bill, from court decision to court decision, but this kind of restriction essentially says two things to women: (a) at a certain stage, your body suddenly belongs to the state and it can force you to have a child, whatever your own reasons for wanting an abortion late in pregnancy; (b) because late abortion entails more risk to you than early abortion, the state must protect you even if your considered decision is that you want to run that risk and your doctor is willing to help you. This restriction insults women in the same way the present preservation-of-life laws do: it assumes that we must be in a state of tutelage and cannot assume responsibility for our own acts. Even many women’s liberation writers are guilty of repeating the paternalistic explanation given to excuse the original passage of U.S. laws against abortion: in the nineteenth century abortion was more dangerous than childbirth, and women had to be protected against it. Was it somehow less dangerous in the eighteenth century? Were other kinds of surgery safe then? And, most important, weren’t women wanting and getting abortions, even though they knew how much they were risking? Protection has often turned out to be but another means of control over the protected; labor law offers many examples. When childbirth becomes as safe as it should be, perhaps it will be safer than abortion: will we put back our abortion laws, to protect women?

… There are many reasons why a woman might seek a late abortion, and she should be able to find one legally if she wants it. She may suddenly discover that she had German measles in early pregnancy and that her fetus is deformed; she may have had a sudden mental breakdown; or some calamity may have changed the circumstances of her life: whatever her reasons, she belongs to herself and not to the state.

—Lucinda Cisler, Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women, ¶¶ 19, 21

Third, you should know what the women of Jane did in Chicago to help make their sisters’ ownership of their own bodies a reality, without the blessing of the male experts and in defiance of the male State. Here’s Brownmiller, again:

Radical women in Chicago poured their energy into Jane, an abortion referral service initiated by Heather Booth, who had been a one-woman grapevine for her college classmates. In 1971, after Booth’s departure, some of the women took matters into their own hands and secretly began to perform the abortions themselves. Safe, compassionate terminations for a modest fee became their high calling—a model, as they saw it, for women’s empowerment after the revolution.

Leaflets appeared in the Hyde Park neighborhood of the University of Chicago bearing a simple message: Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane at 643-3844. The number rang at the home of one of the activists who volunteered to be Jane. As word spread and the volume of calls increased, the service acquired its own phone line and an answering machine, a cumbersome reel-to-reel device that was one of the first on the market. Volunteers, known inside the service as call-back Janes, visited the abortion seekers to elicit crucial medical details (most important was lmp, the number of weeks since the last menstrual period), then another level of volunteers scheduled an appointment with one of the abortionists on the group’s list.

At first the service relied on Mike in Cicero, who was fast, efficient, and willing to lower his price to five hundred dollars as the volume increased. Mike gradually let down his guard with Jody Parsons, his principal Jane contact, an artisan who sold her beaded jewelry and ceramics at street fairs and was a survivor of Hodgkin’s disease. The clandestine abortionist and the hippy artisan struck up a bond. When Mike confessed that he was not in fact a real doctor but merely a trained technician, she cajoled him into teaching her his skills. Jody’s rapid success in learning to maneuver the dilating clamps, curettes, and forceps demystified the forbidden procedures for another half dozen women in Jane. If he can do it, then we can do it became their motto.

Madeline Schwenk, a banker’s daughter who had married at twenty, six months pregnant with no clue whatsoever about how to get an abortion, moved from counseling to vacuum aspiration after Harvey Karman, the controversial director of a California clinic, came to Chicago to demonstrate his technique. Madeline was one of the few women in Jane who was active in NOW, and who stayed affiliated with the Chicago chapter during the year she wielded her cannula and curette for the service. I’d get up in the morning, make breakfast for my three kids, go off to do the abortions, then go home to make dinner, she reminisces. Pretty ourageous behavior when you think about it. But exciting.

Jane’s abortion practitioners and their assistants were able to handle a total of thirty cases a day at affordable fees—under one hundred dollars. A doctor and a pharmacist among the women’s contacts kept them supplied with antibiotics.

Fear of police surveillance in radical circles had its match among clandestine abortionists who relied on a complicated rigamarole of blindfolds and middlemen. Jane straddled both worlds. Abortion seekers gathered every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at a front apartment, usually the home of a Jane member or friend, and were escorted by Jane drivers to the Place, a rented apartment where the abortions were performed. The fronts and the Place changed on a regular basis. New volunteers, brought into the group by counselors and drivers, went through a probation period before they were told that women in Jane were doing the abortions. The news did not sit well with everyone. Turnover was high, from fear and from burnout, although the service usually maintained its regular complement of thirty members.

Jane lost most of its middle-class clientele after the New York law [repealing the state’s abortion ban] went into effect. Increasingly it began to service South Side women, poor and black, who did not have the money to travel out of state, and whose health problems, from high blood pressure to obesity, were daunting. Pressure on the providers intensified. Audaciously they added second-trimester abortionsby induced miscarriage to their skills.

On May 3, 1972, near the conclusion of a busy work day in an eleventh-floor apartment on South Shore Drive overlooking Lake Michigan, Jane got busted. Seven women, including Madeline Schwenk, were arrested and bailed out the following day. The Chicago Daily News blared Women Seized in Cut-Rate Clinic in a front-page banner. The Tribune buried Lib Groups Linked to Abortions on an inside page. Six weeks later the service was back in buinsess. Wisely, the women facing criminal charges selected a defense attorney who was clued in to and optimistic about the national picture. She advised them to hang tight—some interesting developments were taking place in Washington that could help their case. (After the January 1973 Roe decision, all outstanding charges against the seven were dropped.)

The activists of Jane believe they performed more than ten thousand abortions. It’s a ballpark figure based on the number of procedures they remember doing in a given week. For security reasons they did not keep records.

— Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, pp. 123—125

It’s important to remember that, although the occasion for celebrating January 22 is a Supreme Court decision, the repeal of abortion laws wasn’t a gift handed down out of benevolence by a gang of old men in robes. It was struggled for, and won, by women in our own times. Women who stood up for themselves, who challenged the authority of self-appointed male experts and law-makers, who spoke truth to power. Radical women who took things into their own hands and helped their sisters, in defiance of the law, because they knew that they had a right to do it. Radical feminists who built a movement for their own freedom over a matter of months and decisively changed the world in less than five years. It’s not just that we owe Kathie Sarachild, Joyce Ravitz, Ellen Willis, Cindy Cisler, Heather Booth, Jody Parsons, Madeline Schwenk, and so many others our praise. They do deserve our cheers, but they also deserve our study and our emulation. They did amazing things, and we — feminists, leftists, anti-statists — owe it not only to them, but to ourselves, to honor them by trying to learn from their example.

Further reading:

Over My Shoulder #21: Kathie Sarachild, “The Power of History,” in Feminist Revolution (1975)

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from The Power of History by Kathie Sarachild, the leading essay from Feminist Revolution, an insightful, indispensable, and sometimes infuriating anthology published in 1975 by the Redstockings; the essay is, among other things, a kind of memo on where the anthology as a whole is coming from and why the Redstockings thought it was so important to put it together:

The grass-roots appeal of feminism has been reflected in the composition of liberal feminist organizations like NOW as well as in the mass response to the radical ideas and agitation.

Yet the radical, feminist women faced opposition all the way, with constant advice from all sides that everything they were doing would have the opposite effect: that it would raise antagonism and bitterness, tat it was unrealistic and would get nowhere, that it wasn’t speaking to where women were at.

What lay behind the successful plans and strategies of the women’s liberation activists, what kindled the wonderful explosion, was simply their commitment to a radical understanding and approach to feminism, to discovering the common issues facing women and addressing them directly at their deepest level. They were not playing political games, trying to figure out whether women or men were ready for this or that, whether this or that would be understood or be popular.

This was going to be a movement in our own self-interest, as we said. This was going to be a fight for ourselves, for our own immediate lives, as well as for our dreams — a movement growing from our own experience, addressing the problems we ourselves had encountered. But a fundamental part of this effort to better understand our own situation was the radical understanding that the conditions in our own lives we wanted to change were essentially the common situation for women. This understanding of ourselves was going to be essential to the common fight because it was what put a person in touch with the common fight, connected a person directly to the common fight. We wanted to change the world out of our own self-interest, and because we had such a strong sense of this being in our interest, we felt sure we could convey this sense to all who shared the same interests.

With all our talk about self-interest, it was, of course, all along common interest that we were talking about, the common interest of women.

The intensity of our belief that our own personal interest arose out of the common situation was what made usknow that there would be no conflict between standing up for our own impulses and desires and analysis growing out of our own situation, and launching a mass movement. All the politicking, the guessing at the popularity of this or that, the feasibility of this or that with one group or another, would build nothing, really. It would fail to turn women on and maybe even turn them off. We knew this because we acknowledged our own most honest reaction.

The radical, feminist interest in developing and disseminating theory—in raising and spreading consciousness—was scorned, even attacked, by the liberal feminists and non-feminist left alike, who were always calling for action and for whom no amount of action we engaged in was ever even acknowledged. They were always posing it as analysis versus action, and priding themselves in being the activists, or the politicos, or the steady, on-going workers who accomplished tangible, concrete gains in the community, in the nation, for themselves, or what not. They always implied that the radical, theory people (as they would sometimes complain about us) didn’t take any action, didn’t produce any actual changes in the everyday lives of women.

Don’t agonize, organize was a favorite one liner. Of course, when stated as Don’t analyze, organize a lot of the punch goes out of it.

Oddly enough, there was also the totally contradictory charge, usually from the left, that the women’s liberation movement needed some theory, hadn’t produced any theory. Just as the actions of the radical feminists were not seen as actions—they were too petty, too sporadic, or what not—their analysis was not seen as analysis or theory.

What we were trying to do was to advance and develop both theory and action, and to unite them, putting theory into action and action into theory. It was this commitment to unity of the two, of course, which made us radicals, and which made us such a threat to liberals, right and left, who had a hard enough time recognizing and supporting feminism in either the realm of theory or action—and who apparently went blank or haywire when confronted with the combination.

Whatever we were doing just never seemed to fall within the range of the liberal left’s vision. But in the beginning it did fall within the range of the TV cameras and newspapers.

In fact, it was the public actions of the radicals, the consciousness-raising section of the movement, that put the WLM on the map. This was true of virtually every category of action you could name—from confrontation, consciousness-raising actions like the picketing and disruption of the Miss America Contest to developing techniques for mass organizing to producing journals, newspapers and books which were widely disseminated.

But the radical theory and strategy was not only the source of widespread mobilization, was not only what sparked the interest of the masses of women, it was also what produced the most in the way of concrete results, the most changes in women’s lives. This is another lesson of the past decade whose truth comes clear with access to an authentic history of the movement. The greatest achievements of the women’s liberation movement so far, those that have reached the masses of women as a whole—greater freedom in the area of birth control and abortion, greater freedom from oppressive dress codes, and the spread of feminist theory and consciousness—were all the arenas the radicals first addressed and in which they led.

It was in New York State, the area in which radical feminist analysis, action and organizing ideas were strongest and most advanced, that the first concrete breakthrough of the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. was achieved—the abortion law reform which for a few years turned New York State into the abortion mill of the nation and upon which the U. S. Supreme Court modeled its guidelines a few years later. It was the radical strategies of 1) opposition to reform and demand for repeal, led by Lucinda Cisler 2) mass consciousness-raising on abortion with women testifying to their criminal acts in public and in court 3) the development of the feminist self-help clinic ideas and their promotion of simpler, new abortion techniques that led to the nationwide reform in five years time.

The area of employment, on the other hand, is one in which the liberal feminist groups have concentrated and so far have led, and in which there has been as yet very little progress—for most women anyway. (See New Ways of Keeping Women Out of Paid Labor in this book.)

Knowing these things provides information, support and strength for a continuing radical approach and further radical action. But virtually none of it is known.

As soon as the movement began and proved successful, a process set in of wresting control from the women who had started out. And as certain approaches in the movement proved to be popular and successful with other women, the process began of confusing who and what had produced those successful approaches, what thinking, what inds of people, and specifically which people. There was an assault on the history of the movement—to take it over, to lasso it for one’s private ends, to slow it down, to stop it.

Many of the simplest and most powerful elements of the movement’s history I listed earlier have disappeared from sight or the connections between them have been severed. Instead, an array of secondary versions, interpretations and revisions have effaced and replaced the original record.

There are now amazingly different stories of these events, with very different beginnings and very different conclusions. One version doesn’t even have women starting the movement but history and changing times starting it instead. If history or changing times isn’t behind the changes then technology is, or the economy.

The rise of the feminist movement reflected a certain historic context, but this context had to be unlocked by analysis in order to be opened up for attack and work.

The knowledge of who started the movement contains important political lessons for women as does the knowledge of what brought women their gains. That women started the movement and gave it its strength and momentum suggests that it was necessary for women to start the movement, that men would not start the movement, that men don’t lead women to their freedom. Women must rely on themselves for that—not because they should but because they have to.

— Kathie Sarachild, The Power of History, from Feminist Revolution: An Abridged Edition with Additional Writings (1975/1979), pp. 18–21.

Further reading: